By Sakke Teerikoski
In November 2017 it was decided that the European Medical Agency would move from London to Amsterdam and the European Banking Agency would move from London to Paris. Many European cities campaigned for getting these agencies, and it became sort of a symbol for the British exit from the EU. For many people at the EU institutions, these decisions marked the first concrete step of the exit. Later, in December, the European Council came to an agreement that ‘sufficient progress’ had been made in the first phase of the negotiations. It was to move on to the second phase in 2018. The countdown to Brexit had begun at last.
On the question “What is the biggest challenge we will face in 2018?” I have chosen to answer with an article about Brexit. There is no doubt that the British exit from the European Union will be the biggest headache for the Union in 2018, as its main outline will be done this year in order to meet the deadline in March 2019. Brexit is not just a political mess on the heads-of- state level, as it is often portrayed in the news, but affects the work of countless individuals and projects that we usually do not hear about. It is also the biggest legal experiment of our time – and it can only be tried once. All this makes Brexit a much bigger challenge than people think based on what is said in the media.
Let us take a few hypothetical examples. In Brussels we have Charlie from Britain. Charlie has worked hard all of December to accomplish a free-trade agreement between the EU and Mexico. After Brexit, all EU member states except his own country will be benefiting from his trade deal. His country will have to re-negotiate a new deal, possibly from scratch. In London, there’s Bill. Bill has worked all year with his 27 EU counterparts to write new rules for CO 2 emissions testing of motorcycles. Bill does not know whether these rules will apply in the UK anymore after Brexit. Finally, there’s Lily. She actively works with the Galileo satellite program, but she cannot know if Britain can stay in the EU space programs after 2019. Charlie, Lily and Bill are fictive characters, but their work projects are real, and their problems have one thing in common: they must all be solved in 2018.
The examples above are just to illustrate how Brexit becomes a problem in even the smallest policy work that the EU is carrying out. The issue of how things will move on after Brexit will appear on countless negotiation tables. However, Brexit works in a top-down fashion, and the main outline will be decided in the official Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU27. Transition arrangements and a framework for the future relationship will be heavily discussed during the negotiations. Meanwhile, the UK must find a clear line on what kind of Brexit the country wants, and the remaining 27 have to define their priorities among the topics to raise in the Brexit talks. All parties must make sure there is a common understanding of what has so far (i.e. in December 2017) been decided about EU citizens’ rights in the UK and vice versa as well as about the Irish border. EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has set a target on October 2018 for a legal text ready to be finalised and ratified, so 2018 will be the year for all this work.
European negotiators also have to look beyond 2019 and consider the future of the EU. Clearly, Brexit means Brexit, but it’s still way too early to say whether other member states could follow the British example in a near future, say 20 years from now. The original trade-off problem that was raised shortly after the Brexit referendum still remains – the Brexit deal cannot be made too attractive, because it would not sufficiently discourage other member states to trigger article 50 in the future. On the other hand, a hard deal would definitely discourage others to exit, but it would be unnecessarily hard on the UK. This trade-off will have to be tackled in 2018. It is easy to believe that the already visible negative impacts of Brexit (e.g. the falling pound) will serve as good warning. Right now, Europe is heading in an EU-positive direction. However, the political climate in Europe can change quickly.
Setting the framework and finding an agreement for Brexit will be the biggest challenge that we, as Europe, will face in the year that just begun. Maybe someday Brexit will be followed by a Breturn to the EU, but right now – in 2018 – we are in the eye of the storm.
Over and… Out!